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The Collector’s View: Driving Forces Behind a Watch Acquisition

by Frank Chuo on October 2, 2017

Driving Forces Behind a Watch Acquisition

Within the watch community are a diverse group of collectors. Anyone who has been collecting for a while can establish that curating a watch is a largely emotional affair. But what exactly are the driving forces – as sound or misguided as they can be – behind one’s watch selection? In other words, why is it we buy what we buy? Upon deep reflection, here’s what we’ve come up with:

 

Design and visual appeal

The importance of design and visual appeal should not be underestimated – it is perhaps the most influential factor of all. After all, who would buy and wear a watch they thought was hideous? This is a factor that drives the choices of collectors of all walks, new or veteran, casual or hardcore. Not everyone can appreciate the tedious steps involved in enamel dial-making or the fact that it is a dying art form, but just about anyone will be enamoured by the unique beauty of the end product. It can even be something as simple as case size or legibility (especially for more elderly clients) – as long as the design of a watch isn’t complementary to our tastes, it will more likely remain in the boutique’s display case than on our wrist. We derive pleasure from seeing something we deem to be attractive on our wrists; and sure, while that may sound superficial (it is not), it is a valid reason to buy a watch. For some, it may be the only reason, for others, a contributing factor.

 

The significance of the design and visual appeal of a watch should not be underestimated. Watches like the Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Copernicus Celestial Spheres triumvirate are sure to attract the attention of potential clients with the exceptional beauty of its dials.

Craftsmanship and innovation

Neither craftsmanship nor innovation is required for a watch to be desirable or collectable. However, there are some who take these aspects of watchmaking very seriously. Unlike design and visual appeal, for craftsmanship and innovation to be fully appreciated, at least a certain degree of awareness is required. As such, collectors who concern themselves with these factors tend not to be of the casual variety. Craftsmanship is what elevates an otherwise mass-produced industrial product into a high-end product, a work of art if you will. Innovation in a mechanical timepiece is counter-intuitive if you think about it. But it’s worth remembering that it is not so much about improving functionality with all the resources and know-how of the human race, but rather, the challenge of improving functionality while staying within the tight boundaries of mechanical watchmaking.

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Take for instance, the hand-engraved balance cock in  A. Lange & Söhne timepieces, the immaculately black-polished Vacheron Constantin tourbillon cage, the use of a ‘sound board’ in the Audemars Piguet Supersonnerie to amplify repeater chimes, or the incorporation of temperature-resistant, amagnetic silicium into the making of movement parts for an Ulysse Nardin timepiece. These are intricacies that whet the appetites of a certain subset of collectors, perhaps a ‘nerdier’ breed of collectors.

 

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie is a remarkable timepiece that sits on the frontiers of both craftsmanship and innovation.

History and heritage

History and heritage have always been significant drivers behind watch purchases. Watch collecting, being such an emotional game, lends itself perfectly to the romance of history and heritage. People love a good story, especially when it comes to vintage watches: What epoch of the brand’s history was it a part of? What milestones did it mark? Where’s the watch been? Who used to wear it? Even when it comes to modern-day watches, manufacturers use their own history and heritage as leverage; take for instance, the Omega Speedmaster and the first manned lunar landing, or Breguet and the invention of the tourbillon by its founder Abraham-Louis Breguet. Just as with ‘craftsmanship and innovation’, it takes a certain level of effort and knowledge from the collectors’ part to appreciate a watch for its history and heritage. Yet, too much focus on the intangible could result in the lack of respect and appreciation of the more tangible aspects of watchmaking (design, craftsmanship, innovation) – this applies to both manufacturer and collector.

 

The Omega Speedmaster on the glove worn by astronaut Richard Gordon to the moon on Apollo 12. He remained in lunar orbit while his colleagues Peter Coinrad and Alan Bean landed on the Ocean of Storms.

Status and recognition

A sizeable portion of mechanical timepieces today belong in the ‘luxury goods’ category. As such, it is inevitable that they be associated with status and recognition. Certain brands and their watches – owing in part to their superb marketing and presence – are viewed by the general public as symbols of wealth and success. In most societies, wearing a Tag Heuer, or to a greater extent, a Rolex, equates to status. Based on our experience, this appears to be especially true in Asian countries where the use of luxury goods as status symbols is rife. In fact, people from some of these countries have become so in tune with luxury watches that less mainstream (but pricier) brands such as Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille are beginning to chip away at the once unassailable lead set by Rolex as the ultimate status symbol. Of course, those from more horologically-inclined places such as Switzerland will more likely be aware that there are plenty of other brands that are more prestigious and expensive than, say, a Rolex. Enjoying recognition from wearing a certain watch from a certain brand isn’t such a bad thing – it is only human nature that we relish the approval and admiration of others. It does, however, become a problem when status and recognition become the main or only driving force behind a watch acquisition. How tragic it must be to buy a watch that you have no passion for just to impress people you probably don’t even like.

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On the wrist, the Rolex Day-Date 40 emanates an unmistakable aura of power. Rolex remains one of, if not the most recognisable brands today.

Value for money

Talking about value in fine mechanical timepieces is a strange thing. The idea of parting with thousands of dollars for what the general public considers to be obsolete time-telling devices is counter-intuitive. Being luxury goods, these watches are not only unneeded for daily living, but also come with inflated price tags. Nevertheless, that is the inevitable ransom that we pay to satisfy our curiosity and wants, to partake in something that has been painstakingly and superfluously crafted. So long as we, as watch enthusiasts and collectors, see value in any of the four factors discussed above, a fine mechanical timepiece will be worth its price.

With watches (and really, almost anything else), how much bang-for-buck one derives from a purchase can be gauged by how much one gets for every dollar spent. A handful of brands in the upper echelon of horology are well-known for providing good value in their watches. Take for example, Jaeger-LeCoultre and the Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire, or Ulysse Nardin and the new Marine Tourbillon. The former is generous with its complications, innovation and superlative finissage, while the latter comes with an almost heretical price tag for a watch of its kind (silicium technology, tourbillon and enamel; read about it here). We all love a good deal – the collector who strongly desires more for less will be especially driven by aggressive pricing. This is a good thing so long as the number crunching doesn’t distract us from what we truly want.

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Another angle through which the value of a timepiece can be assessed is its value retention. A watch that holds or gains in value over time is a win for both the consumer and the manufacturer. Certain brands are known for the value retention of its watches; Rolex, thanks to immense demand and a deliberate control of supply, has managed to achieve this. Some special watches also tend to hold or increase in value, for example, watches from the A. Lange & Söhne ‘Lumen’ series, or discontinued Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph references. From the purist’s point of view, value retention should never enter consideration when curating a watch. Conversely, from the realist’s point of view, checking that a watch doesn’t completely tank in value right after purchase – when there is a non-zero possibility of a future sale – is only wise. After all, money is precious and choosing a watch that is ‘investment grade’ can only be a boon (that is unless it leads us away from the watch we truly wanted).

 

The new Ulysse Nardin Marine Tourbillon with grand feu enamel dial at CHF28,000 is unequivocally the most value-for-money timepiece of 2017.

Concluding thoughts

Why we choose a watch over another is driven by one or more of the factors discussed above. These factors weigh differently depending on the type of enthusiast/collector that one is. For those only just dipping their toes into the deep waters that is watch collecting, it may be wise to spend a moment exploring what it is about watches that switches you on and what you want to achieve with your watch collection. Doing so will not only reduce the risk of a regretful acquisition, but also help you pick a watch that you are completely satisfied with.

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